This month I turn 50 years old. When I look back at my life, I think about the struggles I’ve had to overcome. So many struggles that I didn’t realize were caused by polluting industries, and an economy that did not care what happened to our bodies if it meant that a profit could be made. It took many years for me to see this unequal burden of exposure to diesel truck soot and car smog that is literally shortening lives in Black, brown and Indigenous communities.
The places where we live, where we play, and where we work, are making us sick. We live near warehouses, shipping yards and highways, and we drive longer commutes, which means we breathe more polluted air.
Chronic exposure to air pollution results in increased deaths attributed to cardiovascular diseases, including heart attacks and strokes, and it has been linked to other ailments such as lung cancer, reproductive and developmental harm, and even diabetes and dementia. It has long been established that living within just one-third of a mile of a highway or close to ports, warehouse distribution centers or other freight corridors is devastating for lung health and can lead to early death.
In Washington, communities of color and tribes living along the Interstate 5 Corridor are hit the hardest. Along the Duwamish River, in communities such as South Park and White Center, where the majority of residents are people of color and experience some of the lowest incomes in Seattle, the youth are almost twice as likely to be hospitalized for asthma, and the mortality rate for lung cancer is higher than average.
This unequal exposure to harmful pollution didn’t happen by accident.
Disproportionate exposure to unhealthy air is one of the clearest examples of environmental racism. A history of inequality and systemic marginalization — like redlining — directly harms the health of low-income communities and communities of color. Now, with the rise of the delivery economy and increased globalization and industrialization, diesel truck traffic poses a potent threat to our health.
The Department of Ecology has several opportunities that it must take advantage of in order to continue to undo these environmental injustices. The Advanced Clean Cars program is a new and powerful tool that will steadily increase the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the road, which will open up a more robust, affordable used EV market.
The Heavy Duty Omnibus Rule will cut smog-forming pollution from trucks while the state works to build its electric truck fleet. And the accompanying reporting requirement is an important reporting tool for understanding how and where trucks are polluting, which will help us achieve cleaner air faster.
And on the horizon is a state-based rule that will soon be available to Washington to adopt: an Advanced Clean Fleet standard that will hold polluting diesel truck fleets accountable for the generations of damage they caused by setting year-over-year zero-emission truck adoption targets.
Washington has a history of adopting state-based policies, led by California, that cut pollution and improve lives in our state. Adopting these standards ensures we stay on track.
It took a long time for me to see the nexus between our environment, health and the inequality we face. It took me longer to see that I had the opportunity to raise my voice and demand something better. I’ve had asthma my whole life, and I struggle with it to this day. With these standards, we can unburden ourselves and the next generation from the impacts of air pollution and climate change, which multiplies the threats to our communities. As I enter this next phase, I want to know that I’ve worked to improve our collective lot in life.
Washington’s Indigenous peoples and communities of color shouldn’t have to choose between living a healthy life, putting food on the table for their children and living in the communities where we want to live. Bringing cleaner, pollution-free cars and trucks to our roads will ring in a new era of health and prosperity.